The standard comparison these days for Ukraine’s predicament, i.e., looking across the border, at almost 200,000 Russian soldiers, is to the Sudetenland in September 1938. When/then Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain, and he agreed to Germany’s demand for the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) to be ceded to Germany. One of the Nazi leader’s pretexts for the ultimatum, to which Chamberlain capitulated, involved the rights of German speaking Sudetens – sound familiar – which increases the superficial plausibility of the otherwise inapt comparison.
The better one – much – is to Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in December 1934 and to Haile Selassie’s powerful appeal to the conscience of the world at The League of Nations in Geneva on June 30, 1936, as the fascist Mussolini-led nation continued to overwhelm and occupy the nascent first democracy in Africa and the oldest Christian nation on the planet.
Zelensky’s appeal to NATO and the conscience of the world at the Munich Security Conference on February 19, 2022, is in most ways, shapes and forms a replica of and homage to Selassie – and to us a surprisingly elegant and powerful one from the man who would be president by playing one on a TV show.
Why is this comparison much more apposite? Let us count some of the ways:
Both Selassie and Zelensky have Jewish lineage and with each that ancestry played/plays a crucial role in their authority to rule.
Selassie, the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Elect of God and Lion of the Tribe of Judah, claimed and by Ethiopian law was credited a direct descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, through their son Menelik I. It is one basis of Selassie’s divinity for many among the almost 1 million Jamaicans and others in the Rastafari Movement. As Bob Marley sang of him “Jah Rastafari” would establish “Zion” in Africa.
Zelensky’s Jewish religion is both miraculous and protective of his country, where our paternal grandparents emigrated from in the late 1890s. Pictured is our grandfather, Samuel Constantine, in his officer’s uniform, during the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph, who briefly permitted Jews to become officers, a reform that ceased when the Emperor died during the Great War.
The Ukraine was probably the most viciously anti-Semitic region in Central and Eastern Europe, where pogroms and other anti-Semitic atrocities were the national sports – think Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, Eastern Germany, European Russia and the worst, the Ukraine.
There pogroms were frequent, especially in Odessa and Kiev (Kyiv) where on September 29-30, 1941, precisely 33,771 Jews were slaughtered in the Babi Yar ravine on the outskirts of that capital – with the enthusiastic participation of the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police and many locals.
The fact that 80 years later a Jew is Ukraine’s President undercuts Putin’s claim that he’s trying to liberate oppressed Russian speakers from a bunch of corrupt fascists, who haven’t changed much since WWII. Zelensky gets people like us to resist what otherwise might be the reflexive reaction of “who gives a shit about them – whose recent ancestors killed almost half of mine.”
The comparison of Ukraine’s to Ethiopia’s appeal to world conscience and of Russia to Italy (not pre-WWII Germany) is also supported by Russia’s second place status as the enemy of the United States and the free world. In the same way Mussolini and Italy were second bananas, Russia and Putin vie with North Korea and Kim Jong-Un today for second and third place in the great totalitarian/troublemaker race. China is clearly on top there and its recent reacceptance of Russia as strategic ally establishes their closest relationship in a half-century. It simply is “my enemies’ enemy is my friend.”
Let’s end by thinking on what Zelensky said last Saturday in Munich:
“Tomorrow [February 20] is the commemoration of the heavenly 108 years ago when Ukrainians made their choice, and many sacrificed their lives for that. This security system is slow and failing us time and time again because of egotism, arrogance, and the irresponsibility of countries on the global level – as a result, some countries are committing crimes while others resort to indifference – that turns them into accomplices. . . .How did the world respond – appeasement.”
And what Selassie said on June 30, 1936:
“I assert that the issue before the Assembly today is not merely a question of the settlement in the matter of Italian aggression. It is a question of collective security; of the very existence of the League; of the trust placed by States in international treaties; if the value of promises made to small states that their integrity and independence shall be respected and assured. . . . In a word, it is international morality that is at stake.”